Swine Flu Fears Close Numerous Schools in Several States

Monday, April 27, 2009 - 4:26pm

NEW YORK — Mexico said Monday the number of people who have died from swine flu may be as many a 149. The Mexican government said it would close schools until May 6 as a precaution.

Meanwhile, officials from New York state have confirmed 20 more cases of swine flu, bringing the confirmed total up to 28. The state is watching another 17 possible cases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are on high alert tracking swine flu cases throughout North America and the world. Spain was the first country European country to confirm a case of swine flu, in an announcement earlier Monday. Suspected cases from New Zealand to Israel were raising concern that the new virus was spreading rapidly.

EU health officials urged Europeans on Monday to postpone nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico because of the swine flu virus, and Spanish health officials confirmed the first case outside North America.

Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used during the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving from North America. South Korea and Indonesia introduced similar screening.

China, Russia and Taiwan said it would quarantine visitors showing symptoms of the virus amid a surging global concern about a possible pandemic.

40 Confirmed Cases in U.S.

The World Health Organization said Monday during a news conference it's confirmed 40 cases in the United States.

It said none of the cases in the U.S. have been fatal, and the figures were confirmed by the U.S. Government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
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Still, the U.N. agency could decide in a matter of hours whether to raise its pandemic alert level as a result of the increasing number of confirmed swine flu cases in Mexico and elsewhere, said WHO spokesman Paul Garwood.

"Today we've seen increased number of confirmed cases in several countries," Garwood told The Associated Press. "WHO is very concerned about the number of cases that are appearing, and the fact that more and more cases are appearing in different countries."

He said the health body was recommending calm and common sense — "if people feel sick, if people feel they are suffering from some kind of ailment like flu (then) they need to go and see a doctor."

"There are measures in place that can treat this illness," Garwood added.

Mexico still appeared the epicenter, with 1,614 suspected swine flu cases and as many as 103 deaths in which the virus is suspected, according to Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama said Monday the spread of swine flu is a cause for concern but "not a cause of alarm" and he's staying on top of the problem.

Obama told a gathering of scientists Monday that the administration is "closely monitoring" cases of swine flu, how many people have it and what the threat is. Obama also said the American people can expect to get regular and frequent updates about what Washington is doing.

He said the swine flu threat dramatizes how the United States cannot allow itself to fall behind in scientific and medical research.

Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday U.S. officials were questioning border visitors about their health.

The U.S. government declared a public health emergency Sunday to respond to the outbreak, which also has sickened people in Kansas, California, Texas and Ohio. Health officials in Michigan said they have one suspected case. Many of them had recently visited Mexico.

Treating Swine Flu

Besser said Monday people can best protect themselves against the swine flu threat by taking precautions they were taught as kids, like frequently washing their hands and covering their mouths when coughing.

The virus also appears responsive to the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which can be used to reduce the severity of the flu if used within two days of the appearance of flu symptoms.

Roughly 12 million doses of Tamiflu will be moved from a federal stockpile to places where states can quickly get their share if they decide they need it, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

Also, Baxter International Inc. has requested the swine flu virus sample from the World Health Organization so that it can research the virus and then develop a vaccine in what the company spokesperson said is half the time, approximately 13 weeks, of normal manufacturing, which is usually 26 weeks. Baxter specializes in research and development in emerging vaccines.

Schools Shutdown

Esti Lamonaca's illness started with a high fever, a cough and achy bones, just a couple of days after she returned from a spring break trip on the beach in Cancun with friends. By the weekend, her voice was hoarse and she was wearing a surgical mask.

Officials at Lamonaca's school, St. Francis Preparatory in Queens, the largest Catholic high school in the U.S. with 3,000 students (sports greats Joe Torre and Vince Lombardi, as well as TV personality Julie Chen are among the school's notable graduates), learned that something was wrong there on Thursday when students started lining up at the nurse's office complaining of fever, nausea, sore throats and achy bones. It wasn't long before the line was out the door.

The nurse notified the city Health Department that day. On Friday, more students were getting sick, and the department dispatched a team to the school at about 1:30 p.m. But they got caught in traffic and didn't arrive until 3:30 p.m, just as classes were letting out for the weekend, said Brother Leonard Conway, the school's principal.

By then, there were only a few students left, and health officials quickly tested them for swine flu. As many as 150 students are suspected to have been infected. Officials think they started getting sick after some students returned from the spring break trip to Cancun, although Mexico officials have yet to turn up any cases in Mexico.

Cleaning crews spent Sunday scrubbing down St. Francis, which will be closed for days.

"I haven't been out of my house since Wednesday and am just hoping to make a full recovery soon," Lamonaca said. "I am glad school is closed because it supposedly is very contagious, and I don't want this to spread like it has in Mexico."

Some schools in Texas, California, Ohio and South Carolina also were closing after students were found or suspected to have the flu.

The outbreak has people on edge across the country.

Officials along the U.S.-Mexico border asked health care providers to take respiratory samples from patients who appear to have the flu. Travelers were being asked if they visited flu-stricken areas.

In San Diego, signs posted at border crossings, airports and other transportation hubs advised people to "cover your cough." At Los Angeles International Airport, Alba Velez, 43, and her husband Enrique, 46, were wearing blue face masks — purely as a precaution — when they returned from a trip to Mexico.

The Los Angeles couple hadn't seen anyone sick while in Guadalajara but were nervous because of the stream of information about new cases. The two were wearing the masks because they're "just cautious," Enrique Velez said.

It was a different story for travelers heading south of the border.

"I'm worried," said Sergio Ruiz, 42, who checked in for a flight to Mexico City after a business trip to Los Angeles and planned to stay inside when he got home. "I'm going to stay there and not do anything."

In Ohio, a 9-year-old boy was infected with the same strain suspected of killing dozens in Mexico, authorities said. The third-grader had visited several Mexican cities on a family vacation, said Clifton Barnes, spokesman for the Lorain County Emergency Management Agency.

"He went to a fair, he went to a farm, he went to visit family around Mexico," Barnes said.

The boy has a mild case and is recovering at home in northern Ohio, authorities said.

His elementary school in Elyria was closed for the week.

In New York, Jackie Casola — whose son Robert Arifo is a sophomore at St. Francis — said her son told her a number of students had been sent home sick Thursday and hardly anyone was in school Friday.

Arifo hasn't shown any symptoms, but some of his friends have, his mother said. And she has been extra vigilant about his health.

"I must have drove him crazy — I kept taking his temperature in the middle of the night," she said.